Caro Meets Theatre

Polly Creed: Humane

By | Published on Friday 5 November 2021

Earlier in the year, in our Three To See and Stream recommendations, we ran a tip for ‘Humane’, an audio drama from True Name Theatre about women involved in The Battle Of Brightlingsea, a series of protests that took place in the coastal Essex town in the mid-1990s.

The release of the audio version of the play was, of course, a result of the strictures of lockdown, but – now that venues are open again – the stage play is headed for a live in-person run at London’s Pleasance Theatre.

To find out more about the show, I spoke to writer Polly Creed.

CM: Firstly, what is ‘Humane’ all about? Whose story does it tell, and where does the narrative take us?
PC: ‘Humane’ is, first and foremost, about Essex girls. Directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, with additional writing from Colette Zacca, it tells the incredible true story of a group of women from a tiny coastal town called Brightlingsea, who – in 1995 – blockaded their town for ten months in protest against live animal exports.

They were a motley group of grannies and grandads, mums with buggies and skiving school kids, but together they did something extraordinary. They faced arrest and police brutality, standing strong for the cause they believed in.

The story follows two of the protestors, Alice and Linda, an art teacher and army wife, who become unlikely friends. Together, they take on the world and confront all they thought they knew. However, soon those same actions threaten to divide them.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
PC: This is a joyful play about community and the power of ordinary people to challenge authority. However, it also touches on complex and knotty issues: animal rights, racism, motherhood and intersectional activism. It is also filled with 90s nostalgia with some fab music, designed by Anna Short!

CM: What was the inspiration behind it? What made you want to do a show about the Battle Of Brightlingsea?
PC: The idea for ‘Humane’ began ten years ago. I was still at school and best friends with a girl called Daisy Blower. One morning, when we were filing into assembly, she told me about her grandma, Betty Blower, and her involvement in protests against live animal exports in the nearby town of Brightlingsea.

She wanted to make a verbatim play about it and conscripted my help. It had the makings of a brilliant drama, but alas, I turned out to be a very flaky collaborator, and eventually forgot about it. Eight years later, I asked Daisy, now a set designer, if she might like to return to the story. She generously suggested that I write the play and she would design it.

I set to work researching the story. As I dug deeper, I was struck again by the improbability of it all: a community of predominantly elderly people who had never protested against anything in their lives, chaining themselves to drains and facing riot police.

However, through interviewing the community, I was also confronted by its complexity. Twenty-five years later, emotions were still high and opinion divided. Again and again, themes such as racism, and attitudes to policing, would resurface. It became clear that this wasn’t just a local story about female friendship or unlikely activism, but something much knottier and more difficult.

Director Imy Wyatt Corner – together with performers Colette Zacca, who has also collaborated on the writing process, and Fran Isherwood – has deftly brought these themes to the foreground. The protests become a lens through which to explore what intersectionality in activism truly means. We fight against the lorry in our own street, but fail to apply the same principles to our neighbour’s street or the rest of the town.

CM: I remember that ‘Humane’ was released as an audio drama earlier this year – was it originally written for the stage or for broadcast? How does the live show differ from the digital broadcast?
PC: It was originally written as a stage play and we had already been developing it for a couple of years before COVID happened. Therefore, when the pandemic hit, we thought it was an opportunity to get the project out there to a wider audience who might not be able to see it otherwise – for geographical or access reasons.

We worked with Audible producer John Ainsworth to develop it, and worked with the most incredible cast, including ‘EastEnders’, ‘Tenko’ and ‘Bergerac’ star Louise Jameson. It did phenomenally well, charting in the top ten countries like France and Hong Kong, and got some lovely reviews!

The stage play is completely different from the audio drama. The audio drama was much more panoramic, taking in a chorus of voices and perspective. The stage play, meanwhile, focuses in much more detail on the relationship between Alice and Linda, delving into the beating heart of their friendship. It’s very human and tender!

CM: Can you tell us about the cast of the play?
PC: We have a formidable two-hander cast with Colette Zacca starring as Alice and Francesca Isherwood as Linda.

Colette’s most recent feature film is ‘Things I Do For Money’, which was shot in Canada by the BAFTA- winning director Warren P Sonoda. She appeared on TV in ‘Dreaming Whilst Black’. Most recently she appeared onstage in ‘Girls’ at the New Diorama for the Pappy Show Theatre Company, directed by Joise Daxter. Colette also managed to shake up a storm going viral as the ‘Dancing Granny’, after being captured on camera dancing at Notting Hill Carnival.

Meanwhile, Francesca Isherwood ​​[pictured] has appeared in ‘right left with heels’ for STIGMAcollective, ‘Sweatbox’ for Clean Break at the Royal Court, ‘Next Time’ with Power Play Theatre at The Pleasance, ‘I Walk In Your Words’ with Tamasha Theatre, ‘The Goodnight Girl’ at The Bunker Theatre and ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ with Bard In The Botanics. Television credits include ‘The Roman Mysteries’, ‘The New Worst Witch’, ‘The Catherine Tate Show’ and ‘Casualty’.

CM: Can we talk about you now, Polly? How did you come to be working in the arts? Was it where you always wanted to be? How did you begin your career?
PC: I’ve always wanted to be a writer! Although, a career in theatre didn’t even occur to me until I reached university, where I fell in love with the new writing scene. Since then, I co-founded Power Play Productions, a company that tells women’s stories of injustice.

In 2018, we took four plays up to the Edinburgh Fringe, including Emma Dennis Edwards’ Fringe First-winning play ‘Funeral Flowers’, and are now also working in film, as well as theatre. More recently I met my collaborator Imy Wyatt Corner and together we set up True Name Productions, which aims to tell ecological stories connecting people and places.

CM: What have been the best things about working in this field?
PC: It’s the most incredible honour collaborating with such talented creatives – lighting designers, stage managers, set designers, sound designers, directors, actors, producers – to turn something that has so far lived in your head into something more beautiful and exciting than you could possibly ever have imagined alone!

I think also the hush of a live audience – the collective process of watching something together in the same room – is something I’ve hugely missed in lockdown!

CM: Talking of lockdown, it was difficult for everyone, obviously, but it’s had a real impact on the arts – how did you get through it?
PC: It was hugely tricky and had such a devastating impact on so many of my fellow artists, particularly actors, musicians and other freelancers.

I think that I was very fortunate that the first lockdown coincided with the development time of a couple of projects I had been working on already. Having projects, such as ‘Humane’, to focus on and develop really got me through, giving me something creative and collaborative to focus my efforts on.

However, I think its impact on the whole scene can’t be underestimated. The raft of measures to support the creative community, with fabulous campaigns like Freelancers Make Theatre Work spurring politicians into action, must continue long after restrictions are over!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
PC: I would love to one day write something for the screen! TV and film have such incredible potential to reach a mass audience. I think that’s so powerful and thrilling.

I’m also currently working on a musical with singer-songwriter Freddie House, about the 1888 matchgirls’ strike. I can’t wait to work in this new medium.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
PC: I will be directing ‘The Straw Chair’ by Sue Glover at the Finborough Theatre – from 4-29 Jan – working alongside director and collaborator Imy Wyatt Corner once again.

Set in the 18th Century and inspired by the true story of the kidnap of Lady Grange, ‘The Straw Chair’ is a modern Scottish classic, exploring liberty, marriage, madness and incarceration, and female empowerment, against the backdrop of the lost way of life of the Western Isles.

I’m also currently producing a documentary about Holloway Prison, working with my long-time collaborator Sophie Compton and BAFTA-breakthrough director Daisy-May Hudson.

‘Humane’ is on at Pleasance Theatre from 3-21 Nov, see the venue website here for more information and to book.

LINKS: | |

Photo: Ali Wright